All Science on Tap events take place at 6pm the second Monday of the month at National Mechanics, 22 S. 3rd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106, unless otherwise stated. Be sure to arrive early to get seats!

September 12, 2016:

The Destruction of the Bison

School Children Viewing the First Bison at the National Zoo, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899. Courtesy of Smithsonian Archives.

In 1800, there were perhaps 30 million bison in the North American Great Plains.  Within a century, their number had fallen to fewer than 1,000.  The decline was so steep and rapid that the old interpretation of it—the wastefulness of American hunters—cannot fully explain it.  A host of factors contributed to the decline:  drought, competition for rangelands by domestic livestock, wolf predation, exotic bovine disease; the degradation of river valley habitats by Euro-American emigrants, and the pressure of both Euro-American and Native American hunters. These anthropogenic and environmental causes of bison mortality were inextricably connected. Like most factors that contributed to the near-extinction of the bison, they resulted from the complex interaction of human society with the dynamic environment of the western Great Plains.

Those interactions began in the mid-eighteenth century, when some American Indian societies on the fringes of the grasslands adopted the use of the horse to hunt the bison of the western Great Plains.  Horses not only facilitated an increased harvest of the bison, but they competed with the bison for scarce forage.  The interconnections continued in the mid-nineteenth century, when increased numbers of cattle and sheep in the Canadian and American Great Plains led to the degradation of the bison’s range and the transmission of exotic bovine disease to local populations of bison.  In the 1870s, the United States government permitted–indeed, encouraged—Euro-American hunters to destroy the bison to deny the resource to Indians of the western plains and open the grassland to Euro-American settlement.  In the early twentieth century, preservationists in league with ranchers in the American and Canadian West saved the bison from extinction but contributed to the domestication of the species by confining them to managed preserves.


About the Speaker: Andrew C. Isenberg is Professor of History at Temple University, where he specializes in North American environmental history.  He is the author or editor of five books, including The Destruction of the Bison:  An Environmental History, 1750-1920; Mining California:  An Ecological History; and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History.

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